Top-ten season has arrived, and in the case of movies, box office figures and critics' picks are as diverse as usual. This year moviegoers filled the cineplexes for "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third," "The Transformers," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," and "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" - every one a disposable comic-book story or fantasy. Not one of these films ended up on the critics' Z lists, which saved its highest praise for another cartoon, "Ratatouille."
Half the fun of top ten movie lists is thinking about how they mirror our world. This year the surprise is to discover how many very good movies addressed serious issues with grim realism. "No Country for Old Men," top pick by the New York Film Critics Circle, portrays a standoff between a sociopath, who uses a cattle stun gun to kill his victims, and an aging Texas sheriff, who has no stomach for the forms of violence inspired by drugs and greed in the new millennium.
Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who plays Anton Chigurh, the movie's ruthless contract killer, may just replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, previous pick for the most relentless killer around. Chigurh's chilling coin-toss command, "Call it, friendo," is the 2007 version of Schwarzenegger's "I'll be back."
His face lined with heartbreaking fatigue, Tommy Lee Jones plays old-school Sheriff Bell, rendered helpless by the evil afoot in the world. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and from Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel, "No Country for Old Men" is set in 1980, but the time might as well be today. More successfully than the remake, "3:10 To Yuma," another critical favorite with a good-guy loser, "No Country for Old Men" imbues that classic movie genre, the Western, with a bleakly modern sensibility. It also draws on the Horror genre for its iconic depiction of evil. In 2007 we have modified our myths to fit a sense of despair.
Another critically favored movie, "Michael Clayton," moves into the corporate world but employs narrative elements similar to "No Country for Old Men." Greed and drugs play important roles, and George Clooney's good guy, such as he is, barely prevails against the forces of evil.
With outstanding performances by Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, "American Gangster," one of the few films critics and box office numbers agreed on, sanitizes drug crime as the black man's route to financial success. The shocker in this retelling of a mobster family is the corrupt complicity of a Vietnam-era military in importing drugs from the Far East.
While the U.S. may be waking up to the environmental crises awash in the world, Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" de-romanticizes the nature by injecting with harsh realism the idealistic quest of a young iconoclast. It's a far cry from "March of the Penguins" or "Happy Feet."
Even the star power of Angelina Jolie couldn't keep "A Mighty Heart," the retelling of the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl from bombing at the box office. "Rendition," where an innocent Egyptian-American is tortured, suffered the same fate, despite stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon. Who can fault moviemakers and actors, though, from taking on such serious subjects and doing it well?
The film industry also tackled the Iraq war in Brian DePalma's innovative "Redacted," an exploration of how the media cover and distort what's happening in Iraq, and Paul Haggis's powerful "In the Valley of Elah," where Tommy Lee Jones plays another aging policeman, this time a retired M.P. trying to uncover the grisly truth about his son's death while AWOL after duty in Iraq.
Sharing these films' bleak views of culture and mores in the 21st century were other well-made movies like "The Lives of Others," a psychodrama set in 1984 Berlin that examines surveillance and moral decay. Boston-based "Gone Baby Gone," about child abduction, leaves a bitter taste, as do two better plotted movies, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," which treats parental murder, and "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," which explores Irish Republican strife in the early 20th century.
Except for "Ratatouille," which is, after all, a kid's cartoon about a rat, 2007 was not a year for light-hearted, witty comedy or musicals. "Once" is an affecting but bittersweet comedy about a British singer and Czech pianist, and "Hairspray" features John Travolta in drag. "Knocked Up" mismatches a slacker and the success-driven 20-something pregnant by him, while "Juno" takes the unexpected pregnancy scenario into the teen years. Even "The Simpsons Movie" has Homer polluting Springfield's water supply, and the title of "Death at a Funeral" speaks for itself.
In 2007, the most successful moviemaking approach seemed to be treating serious topics but with a light touch, as Michael Moore does in "Sicko," his documentary about our broken healthcare system. Alzheimer's Disease hardly makes the cheeriest of topics, but "Away from Her" skillfully finds a way to keep the audience from drowning in despair.
Among Hollywood's stock franchises, "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Ocean's Thirteen" manage to entertain with at least some degree of panache. Marion Cotillard's remarkable performance as Edith Piaff propels "La Vie en Rose," the biopic about the French singer, to excellence despite its narrative difficulties.
If one 2007 movie stands head and shoulders above the rest, it's "I'm Not There," Todd Haynes's investigation of celebrity channeled through six impersonations of Bob Dylan. In my book, the remarkable risk-taking of this movie, combined with Cate Blanchett's tour-de-force version of Dylan, makes it the one not to miss. But the year isn't quite over, and a few movies with more optimistic outlooks may yet show up.
Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.